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Work-in-Progress: Mental Images in Studying Electromagnetism

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2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Minneapolis, MN

Publication Date

August 23, 2022

Start Date

June 26, 2022

End Date

June 29, 2022

Conference Session

Electrical and Computer Engineering Division Poster Session

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Paper Authors


Renjeng Su Portland State University

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Renjeng Su received Dr. Sc. degree from Washington University in St. Louis in 1980. He is now a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Portland State University where he has been a faculty member and administrator since 2009. He was at University of Colorado from 1885 to 2009. His current research interest is in teaching in engineering, science, and mathematics.

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Abstract The course on electromagnetism is a foundational course in undergraduate electrical engineering curricula. The course is challenging for instructors and extremely difficult for students. Pedagogy in electromagnetism has been an active subject in the research literature. We can find many useful ideas about what and how to teach. Instead of the what and the how, our focus is on the internal mechanism of learning. Two basic questions come under the focus: a) What happens to a mind when it is getting to know a concept? and b) In what way can the grasp of a concept be observed? These questions are clearly important. The answers could have significant impact on our choice of teaching methods and materials. The main point of the article is to make a case that mental images are a critical element in concept learning. We argue that when a concept is forming, certain mental images develop and evolve. A mental image may come into existence from none before; or it may result from modification and combination of existing images. It is possible that an old image becomes an obstacle and must be replaced by the new. In any case, development of mental images is essential for concept learning. We also think that internal imagery of a learner can be observed. It can be revealed through writing and drawing. Non-verbal outputs from the mind are especially useful to gauge the level of understanding. We use three sources of information to make the case. First, research in cognitive psychology has long established that mental imagery is essential to all human thinking, particularly problem solving. Second, mental imagery and imagination in non-verbal form had been widely cited by scientists themselves. In the article, we cite direct statements made by physicists. Third, we present two cases of direct observation. Both strongly confirm the theory developed in the field of cognition science. We expect that the emphasis on developing mental images in the fields course would lead to fruitful development of teaching methods and materials. The paper uses a specific example to illustrate the idea.

Su, R. (2022, August), Work-in-Progress: Mental Images in Studying Electromagnetism Paper presented at 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Minneapolis, MN.

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